RAMPASASA, Indonesia — I started hearing the offers soon after arriving at the Liang Bua cave in the mountains of Flores island.
"You want to see a living hobbit?" a guard at the cave whispered. "I can take you there but it will cost 500,000 rupiah ($55)."
Kornelis Jaman was referring to the dwarf cave-dwellers, whose skeletal remains were discovered in the cave. Scientists believe they went extinct 17,000 years ago, but villagers with an eye for profit insist the hobbits hung around until at least 300 years ago and their descendants are still living in nearby villages.
The "Ebu Gogo" or "the grandmother who eats everything," has for generations played the role of villain in Flores folklore. They are described as big-eyed, hairy creatures who came down the mountain to steal crops, fruit and liquor.
The discovery of the remains in the Liang Bua cave in 2003 put the Flores excavation on the map. Suddenly, a steady stream of fossil enthusiasts was turning up, and hobbit tours began.
Rampasasa, a tiny farming village just a few miles from the cave, became a popular stop. Supposedly there were as many as two dozen tiny people living there.
Scientists at the dig site laughed at the mention of Rampasasa and said there were no hobbits there. But I had to see for myself, so photographer Achmad Ibrahim negotiated a fee of 150,000 rupiah ($16) and off we went.
Rampasasa was typically poor, with crumbling wooden homes and a one-lane dirt road pockmarked with rocks which ran through the village. We were escorted to a room with shiny, blue wallpaper, plastic flowers and sketches of the hobbits on the wall. This was where the promised hobbit meeting would take place.
Soon enough, 80-year-old Viktor Jehabut appeared in the doorway. He was definitely short — about 1.20 meters (4 feet) tall.
"There are a lot of people like him here," said Jaman, our tour guide. "Maybe they are related with the hobbits in the cave."
But Jehabut looked like an ordinary person, just shorter.
He sat down, clutched my hand and began regaling me with tales of the hobbit in his native Manggarai language. He spoke of the hobbits' thieving ways and how they could disappear into thin air when threatened. You could cut them, he said, and they wouldn't bleed.
But when asked whether he was related to the hobbits, Jehabut smiled, revealing his one tooth, and acknowledged it wasn't true. He said those rumors started after the dig, and that childhood hardship had stunted his growth. "When I was young," he said, "it was difficult to find food."
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